Helping Students Counter Anti-Muslim Bias

Students share their own experiences of bias or harassment, learn about efforts to combat the targeting of Muslim students at one school, and consider what actions they might take to counter anti-Muslim bias and harassment. 


To the Teacher:

In schools across the United States, Muslim students and immigrant students, among others, have been forced to deal with the effects of the hateful rhetoric and fear- mongering aimed at them during and after the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a non-scientific survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center in April 2016, a third of educators polled reported an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in their schools. A full 80% have described heightened fear and anxiety among students of color.

Since election day, as the Dallas News noted, “there have been reports of widespread harassment against Muslims and other minority groups in schools across the country. In Plano, one Muslim student reported that a group of students called him a terrorist and used a racial slur to refer to his African-American friend.” (To hear students and teachers discuss the impact of the increased bullying and harassment of students of color in their school, watch this CNN video, “In the age of Trump, there's a new school bully.”) 

Of course, Islamophobia (prejudice or discrimination against people who are perceived to be Muslim and a fear or dislike of Islamic culture) existed in the United States long before this presidential campaign. But studies have shown that hate crimes against American Muslims have now soared to their highest levels since the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks.

Researchers have seen a correlation between the increase in attacks and president-elect Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. For example, in the wake of the December 2015 San Bernardino terror attacks, Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. A steep rise in hate crimes was reported following his remarks. Trump also declared that “Islam hates us” and accused American Muslims of protecting terrorists. He has called for surveillance of mosques and proposed having Muslims carry identity cards and having their names entered into a database. At a campaign rally in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 21, 2015, Trump fed into the slanderous lie that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated when the twin towers came down in New York on September 11, 2001.  

Many young Muslim Americans, on top of the usual trials of adolescence, are left feeling isolated and alienated, if not unwelcome in their own country. (For more on this, see this New York Times article.)

If schools are the central public institution for teaching civics, and if we want to live in a country and world where people don’t mistreat and abuse each other, then we have an especially important role to play at this time in history. It is up to us, as educators, to confront bias in our schools by interrupting, questioning and educating, even when we only suspect that our students (or colleagues, for that matter) are being targeted. We have the responsibility to provide all of our students with a safe learning environment, despite the bigoted ideas that are now being expressed more freely around us.   

One way to combat Islamophobia is by listening to the stories and experiences of Muslims. Connecting with others in this way can help us move beyond ignorance, fear, and stereotyping. It may also help move us to action and encourage us to stand up and push back on Islamophobia and the bullying, alienation, and marginalization that come with it.

This lesson plan has two parts. In part one (one classroom session or circle), students share their own experiences of bias or harassment, learn a few facts about Muslims, then hear and reflect on statements from young Muslims about the impact the 2016 election has had on their lives. In part two (a second session), students watch a video about efforts to combat the targeting of Muslim students at one school, then consider what actions they might take to counter anti-Muslim bias and harassment, and prepare to take those actions.  

If you’d like more information about American Muslims before introducing these activities to your students, consider watching one of the following videos from Unity Productions Foundation and PBS Learning Media. They may better equip you to address Muslim prejudice and stereotypes that come up.

Here is a fact sheet to consider as well to inform yourself and/or your students:

Please also see these guidelines on discussing difficult or controversial issues.


Part One:  Building Understanding & Solidarity

Opening (Ceremony)

Read the following quote by President Obama out loud:

“What I say to [my daughters] is that people are complicated. Societies and cultures are really complicated. .... These are living organisms, and it's messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given  moment there's going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. .... You don't get into a fetal position about it. You don't start worrying about apocalypse. You say, okay, where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward?”

Ask students to reflect on this quote by sharing a sentence or two about what President Obama said to his daughters. 

Go-round:  Our Experiences

If possible, arrange students in a circle, and pass a “talking piece” around the circle in order, giving each student a chance to speak on the following prompt.*

Talk about one time when you’ve been treated in a mean way, harassed or discriminated against, or a time in your life when you’ve watched someone else be treated in a mean way, harassed or discriminated against. What happened? How did it make you feel?

* For more on the circle process, see our introduction to circles

Young Muslim Voices: Introduction

Tell students that during and after the presidential election, schools and communities around the country have seen an increase in incidents of bigotry and hateful language targeting women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and Muslims, among others.

Today we’re going to discuss bigotry against Muslims and how we can counter it. Remind students that freedom of religion is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and is a core American value. However, at one time or another, people from different religious groups in the U.S. have faced bigotry and discrimination, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists.   

In recent years, and especially during and since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve seen a surge of bigotry and hateful speech directed at Muslims. Much of this behavior is based on ignorance and misinformation about Muslims. Note a few facts about American Muslims:

  • Over 3 million people consider themselves to be Muslims in the United States. That’s about 1 percent of the population. About three-quarters of Muslim adults have lived in this country since before 2000.
  • American Muslims are racially diverse: 30% describe themselves as white, 23% as Black, 21% as Asian, 6% as Latino and 19% as other or mixed race.
  • A high percentage of Muslims are active contributors to their local cities and communities: About three-quarters of American Muslims donate or assist local charities. Muslims also serve their communities as elected officials, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and every other profession you could think of.
  • While some Islamic countries and cultures have laws and practices that oppress women, the Quran (the central religious text of Islam) explicitly states that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. Many Muslim countries have a higher percentage of women in national elected office than the U.S. In Muslim countries that limit women’s rights, many women and men are working to overcome these restrictions.
  • Muslim women and girls are sometimes targeted for harassment because they are wearing a Muslim headscarf known as “hijab.” Many people believe that Muslim women in the U.S. who wear a hijab are forced to do so. But in most cases, wearing a hijab is a personal choice for American women.
  • In Islam, as in all religious faiths, there are a minority of people who are extremists. But the vast majority of Muslims reject extremists, reject their violence and consider their interpretation to be a distortion of the Muslim faith. Muslims are the most likely faith community in America to condemn terrorism.  

Tell students that we’re now going to hear from a range of young American Muslims from across the U.S. who describe their recent experience with bigotry, prejudice and harassment.


Go-round: Young Muslim Voices

Print out this pdf of “Young Muslim Voices,” preferably on card stock. (This material, including links to sources, is also at the bottom of this lesson.) 

Place the cards in an envelope. Explain that the envelope contains the voices of young American Muslims. These voices were taken from different media reports during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. Note that some of these statements have been adapted from the original. Each card includes a link to the source article that contains the complete quote in context. 

Explain that for this go-round, the envelope will serve as the talking piece. Hand the envelope to the student to your right or left. Ask the student to take one card out of the envelope and read what’s on it out loud. Instruct the student to hold on to the envelope while reading the statement to avoid unnecessary distractions. Ask each student to allow for a few seconds of silence before passing on the envelope to their neighbor. 

If students feel uncomfortable with the statement on the card they draw, they can exchange it for another card in the envelope, or pass on reading a “young Muslim voice” altogether.

Pass the envelope around the circle until all students have had a chance to read out a statement or until you have no more “voices.”

Next, conduct several more go-rounds, asking students some or all of the following questions:

  • How did it feel to listen to these young Muslim voices? Explain.
  • Which voice made the biggest impact on you? Why do you think that is?
  • Talk about how other voices made you feel. How did they affect you? 
  • How do you think this activity relates to your life, or to what happens at school?

If students have questions or comments that require additional information or research, make a note of these on the board.  Return to them later, when you have time to research and answer questions and work with students to correct any misinformation.



Closing (Ceremony)

Explain that in our next time together, we’ll explore different ways that we ourselves can, in President Obama’s words, “keep it moving forward” – things we can do to combat the harmful beliefs and behaviors highlighted today. 

Read the following quote by Nelson Mandela out loud:

“If people can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

In a go-round, ask students to share their reflections on this quote.

Alternative Closing:  In a go-round, invite students to share one word that for them captures the work we did today.



Part Two:  Combating Islamophobia


Opening (Ceremony)

Read the following quote by Dr. Martin Luther King out loud:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Have students quietly reflect on the quote as they think back to the session they participated in last time. Explain that Dr. King’s words will frame our work today. 

Depending on the size of your group and time available, consider sending the talking piece around asking students to share a short (one or two line) reflection on how they see Dr. King’s quote connecting to the young Muslim voices we heard in our last time together.

Combating Islamophobia in Schools

Show the following 7:45-minute clip from the PBS NewsHour entitled Teaching “Different is Okay” to Combat Islamophobia in Schools:

In a series of go-rounds, ask students:

  • What resonated with you from this video clip?
  • What does the clip say about what it means to be an American?  What are your thoughts and feelings about this?
  • What is one thing you think was useful that students in St. Cloud did to interrupt bias at school?  You can add other interventions you think could be useful to interrupt similar behavior at school (or beyond)—even if they weren’t mentioned in the clip. 

John Tulenko, the reporter in the piece, asks students: “One year from the walkout, how much has changed?” 

Ubah Noor, one of the students in the piece, responds: “There are other students that are kind of stepping out of the way to …  If a Somali kid is walking in the hallway, if somebody says something to them, they might step in and be like: ‘Hey, that’s not funny.’ I’ve noticed something like that happen once in a while.  I feel like gradually it’s changing.” 

Brainstorming Activity: What Can We Do?

Ask students, What other words or behavior could we use to interrupt the kind of slurs and  harmful, hateful language that we heard young Muslim describe in our last session and that we saw in the video just now?

Write students’ ideas on a sheet of chart paper under the heading, “Interrupting insults, slurs, and other kinds of harassment.” You might start the list with the words mentioned by the student in the video:  “Hey, that’s not funny.”

If students struggle to come up with language, consider sharing some of the following to get them started:

  • That language is not okay.
  • I heard that, please stop.
  • I saw that, please stop.
  • That is hurtful and not okay.
  • Please don’t do that, it’s hurtful, insensitive, bigoted, etc.
  • Do you know what that means?
  • Do you understand the impact of that word?
  • That’s offensive.
  • Do you realize that that’s a slur/ insult/ put down?
  • What do you base that on?
  • Think about how insulting/hurtful that is.
  • Ouch!

After you’ve created a list of language for students to consider using, send a talking piece around inviting students to reflect on the following question: What might get in the way of speaking up or standing by other students who are being targeted?

Summarize what students say. Note that often we don’t know what to say or do in the moment when we hear people being harassed, when we hear slurs or hate speech, or when we see people being ostracized. For this reason we need to practice. It’s important that interrupting harmful behavior becomes a habit for everyone in the school. And even if we aren’t the first person to interrupt the slur or harassment, we can help by echoing the courageous person who did speak up first. There is power in numbers. 

Sometimes we may be afraid to step in for fear of becoming a target ourselves. In these situations, we can sometimes intervene by engaging directly with the person being targeted and helping them move safely away from the aggressor. (See this description of the “Join Us Intervention.”) 

Thinking about what to do in situations of harassment ahead of time and practicing how to interrupt and/or stand by the person being targeted can help us gain confidence and know what to do in the moment when situations arise.  

Explain that having language to choose from (point at the list you created) and applying it in a roleplay can help us all be better allies and upstanders when we hear offensive or threatening language.

In this next activity, the goal is to practice and get more comfortable with interrupting harmful language (including body language) by discussing different scenarios and then acting them out through a role play.

Planning and Practice

Invite students to count off by twos.  Ones face twos to create pairs that will work with the scenarios below. Introduce the first scenario.  Invite students in their pairs to discuss the following: 

  • What are your feelings about this scenario?
  • What is harmful about it (specific language, gestures, etc.)?


  • Look over the language on our chart.
  • Try practicing with each other the lines you think would be most effective in responding to each particular behavior. 
  • Consider other things you might do to support the person in the scenario who is being harassed.  Make a note of any good ideas you have so you can share them with the class.

Debrief after every scenario, and record especially helpful ideas students came up with.   

Scenarios to Roleplay

Consider the following scenarios, which are based on what we heard from young Muslims in our last session.

  • While watching a football game at school, a Muslim student is confronted by another student who calls her a “terrorist.”
  • In class, several students are asking a Muslim classmate pointed questions about Islam and terrorism that are making her feel surrounded and uncomfortable.
  • A student turns away from a Muslim classmate and jokes that she is related to Saddam Hussein because she has a similar last name.
  • A student is taunted by classmates because she is wearing a hijab.
  • A Muslim student’s good friend stopped talking to her at school when she began wearing a hijab.
  • As a Muslim student is heading home, a younger classmate pulls off her hijab.

Closing (Ceremony)

Read the quote by Dr. King out loud once more:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Ask students to share one thing they might start doing, stop doing or continue doing as a result of today’s activity.



Young Muslim Voices

These statements are adapted from media stories. Sources are indicated. Print out on cardstock, cut into cards, and place in an envelope for students to pass.

You may prefer to print out the pdf version of this document, which may be easier to cut into cards.



A lot of Muslim students are scared. Some are scared to go outside. They’re scared that Trump has empowered people who have hate and would be hostile to them. —Abdalla, 21

Instead of occupying myself with a teenager’s normal concerns, like homework, clothes and hanging out with friends, I’ve had to contend with growing anti-Muslim sentiment.  I’ve adjusted my routines to avoid attacks and I worry about how I appear to the rest of society. I have repeatedly felt compelled to justify my faith and to distance myself from terrorists who murder in the name of my religion. I feel like the past two months have probably been the hardest of my life.  —Hebh, 15

I am part of a generation of Muslim Americans who have grown up amid the fight against terrorism, in an America in which anti-Muslim hostility, by many measures, has been historically high.  —Hebh, 15

I remember seeing micro-aggressions that my mom faced because she wore a hijab. I, too, wore a head scarf when I was younger, but after enduring “weird” looks and treatment, I took it off.  I didn’t feel comfortable anymore.  —Jensine, 17


I was raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I feel like it’s them against us, that everybody’s out to get you and you have something to prove. Our aspirations are the same as any other American or teenager or youth. It feels like they’re trying to shoot down our dreams and aspirations simply because we practice a different religion. —Shafiq, 19


I was born and raised in the New York area. I didn’t tell a lot of people I was Arab in high school. But when I entered college, I began to introduce myself as Arab and Muslim. I got a surge of self-confidence leaving Long Island and leaving high school, which were both constricting environments. I found that it was much easier to get to know others if I totally accepted my religious and cultural identity. The reality is that I’m just as Muslim and just as Arab as I’m American, and it’s possible to be all three.  —Zayneb, 19


Instead of shrinking in the face of growing anti-Muslim sentiment, I have redoubled my conviction to embrace the complexities of my identity publicly. I am in high school in Long Island and have been feeling a backlash from my classmates. Since Paris, other kids in the class talk about getting rid of Islam. I’ve never wanted to identify more as an Arab and a Muslim.  —Zayneb’s younger brother


I live in Dallas, Texas. My parents emigrated here from Pakistan. Most mornings, I take the train to get to school. But after Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, my parents ask me to drive. They were worried for me. They are scared for me to go outside, as someone who wears a hijab. Being an American is a very prominent part of my identity. It’s shaped my values and my beliefs. The fact that half the nation doesn’t think I’m American enough — that hurts.  —Aysha,  21


The election results were a discomfiting reminder of the way many Americans perceive me. Growing up in Houston, Texas, I’m used to feeling like an outsider, but not to the degree I experienced since the election.  I already knew there was the fear, but I didn’t know there was the hate, too. When people look at me, all that they can see is a foreign woman.  —Zainab, graduate student


I’ve never heard anyone call me a terrorist until this year. My parents are immigrants from Somalia, and they left it because of the civil war.  I remember one day, I went to a football game.  And then they were saying some mean things to me, like “you terrorist,” and then I got angry. And they’re like, “She’s probably going to blow us up, because she’s so angry right now.” I knew that I wasn’t accepted, but then he kept saying those things, like that I’m not American, that I’m not from this area. Even though I was born and raised here, I’m not someone that deserves to live here.   —Shukri, middle school student


I remember what it felt like when we first immigrated here, starting middle school outside of Dallas. They called me and my family names. In the seventh grade, when I started wearing the hijab, one girl that I thought was a friend stopped talking to me at school. My school bus driver called me a “terrorist.” For a while I stopped wearing the hijab. I wanted to not go to school. I would rather be home-schooled.  It was terrible.  But as I got older, the teasing and taunts bothered me less. I decided to wear the hijab again, because now I felt proud to wear it. I want to educate people about Islam.   —Zahra, 17


Rather than having to engage with celebrating Trump supporters, I skipped class the morning after the election. I decided to avoid a situation where things could get out of control. For my own sake, I wanted to minimize interactions. I do plan to continue wearing my hijab and praying in public spaces, although I have friends who have stopped doing both. Even prayer can incur suspicion among non-Muslims.   —Aicha, Senior at Dallas Tech



When I went to school that day I was excited. I built a clock to impress my teacher but when I showed it to her, she thought it was a threat to her. It was really sad that she took the wrong impression of it. They arrested me and they told me that I committed the crime of a hoax bomb, a fake bomb. I was happy the charges were dropped. I didn’t really care that the police didn’t apologize for arresting me.  —Ahmed Mohammed, 14


Ever since the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, Muslims in America are viewed negatively. Even though this happened almost 15 years ago, when people find out I’m Muslim, they immediately become cautious with me, suspicious. There’s this fear that a lot of Muslims are terrorists.  —Farhana, 16


People have told me they think Islam discourages females from learning and that we’re nothing more than objects to produce babies. In reality, Islam teaches people to treat females with respect and give them the same rights as men. I wish that people would understand that not all Muslims are Islamic extremists who deny women rights. ….  —Farhana, 16


I was in class once and we were learning about the 9/11 attacks. The conversation shifted to terrorists and Saddam Hussein’s name came up. (Saddam Hussein was the leader of Iraq and a key target of the U.S. war on Iraq that began in 2003.) One of my classmates turned my way and, with a sly smile, joked that I was related to Saddam just because my last name is Hussain. I snapped back “You are an idiot, you know that? I mean, seriously, Saddam was a dictator in the Middle East. I’m not even Arabic and not all people with the last name Hussain are terrorists.” I looked straight into his eyes. The classmate who teased me shrunk back in his seat; his face was red and he didn’t say anything else.  —Farhana, 16


You know what? I am white and I am a Muslim. When I first came to New York I was surprised people stereotyped Muslims like that because being a white Muslim is normal in my native country of Turkey. From my perspective, my skin color doesn’t define who I am or where I come from. I think what matters is what’s on the inside anyway.   —Hande, 16


Americans judge Muslims because of what is happening in other countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. In those countries they mistreat Muslim women. But that doesn’t mean all Muslims treat women badly. What happens over there is over there and shouldn’t be a reflection of all Muslims.   —Hasan, 19


My parents and those of my Muslim friends are pretty liberal. For example, my parents don’t force their decisions on me … and they let me hang out with my friends. My mother doesn’t wear a hijab and never asked me to wear one. It is my choice alone. I started wearing one last year in 9th grade. The hijab is mainly for covering up the girl’s shoulders, neck, and hair because in Islam it’s considered appropriate for a woman to cover her body and hair. I also wear it as a personal statement against all the media images of women wearing hardly any clothes.   —Shameera, 15



I was amazed to see teachers calling me “towel head” and my principal call me “ISIS.”  Teachers in one school I attended said I was disturbing the class because I wear the hijab. I can’t imagine seeing anyone else that’s looking different in class having to go through something like that.     —Kadidja, 15


I felt in danger coming to school during the week since the election. I asked my fellow classmates to hold each other accountable to eliminate hurtful insults and threats in the future. My whole life I’ve gotten looks when I go into the supermarket, or a coffee shop, or anywhere else. But every time I walk into school I felt safe and welcome. But since the election, I’ve had my mom calling me after a late night yearbook session, asking me if my teacher walked me to my car. I’ve been given pepper spray and taught how to use it because of all this. School has always been a safe place for me and I want that to remain the case.   —Rameen, high school senior


I remember four years ago when I was first bullied for being Muslim. The last day of eighth grade year, I was just going home, and then this boy — I think he was a year younger than me — he pulled off my hijab. And at the time, I was wearing a longer one, so it was more easy to kind of like pull off from the back. And then I also had like a pin underneath to hold it in place. And then that kind of came loose. So, like, at the time I was just trying to think of like five different things at one time, like trying to get the pin to not stab me in the neck, and then turn around to see who this kid is.  —Hafsa, 18